May, 2019. I'm walking the narrow streets of Tzfat. My parents are nearby, all of us browsing artist stalls. I have my eyes open for a prayer shawl for my son, whose bar mitzvah is the week after we get home. I flash back to the post-grad program I had considered, Livnot U'Lehibanot (to Build and Be Built), a road not taken that would have landed me in this ancient city known as the birthplace of kabbalah and Jewish mysticism in my very early 20s.
Instead, I am here now in my mid-40s with my 16-year-old daughter on a once-in-a-lifetime trip, the first time in Israel for both me and my girl, a gift from my parents.
I have dreamed of this place for years. I do not mean I have longed for it and imagined being here, though those things are true. I mean I have actually dreamed of touching the ground in Israel over and over for the past two decades. In every dream, I know where I am, and I know that I'm home.
Now, my eyes awash in the blue Tzfat is famous for, the scent of zaatar wafting in the sweet Galilean air, I am not dreaming. It may be my first time here, yet my dreams prepared me well or perhaps prophesied what my soul already knew, and I feel as if I know my way around in a way that I don't try to explain to our guide, Oded, whose name means “encouragement.”
We gravitate to a jewelry stall, fawning over the rings, bracelets, and amulets. I want to buy one of everything but settle on a silver ring, engraved with the words gam ze ya'avor. I slip it onto my ring finger on the right hand next to the tourmaline I rarely take off. It fits perfectly. Soon, we'll wander into a small shop dense with gorgeous fabrics and a bright, lovely, energetic woman who asks us what we're looking for.
I tell her about my son's upcoming bar mitzvah and she leads us to a tallit I think he will love; it is simple and modern, with what I hope is just the right balance of beauty and masculinity to please him. My daughter drapes one by the same artist over her shoulders and immediately bursts into tears; clearly, she has found hers, too.
* * *
The whole trip, from jumping into the Mediterranean for the first time to a torrent of my own tears when I stand before the Kotel, from somberly walking the grounds of Yad Vashem to floating in the Dead Sea, from 115-degree days driving south towards the Negev to trinket-shopping in Jaffa, I turn the ring on my finger, knowing that none of this will last. I soak it in through my skin, I eat heartily and ask questions and bask in being surrounded by Hebrew and Arabic and Russian, I ponder all of the moments that led me here, I recite the shecheheyanu to myself, gaze into the giant cisterns at Masada and chat with taxi drivers and know that we will never forget these days.
The ring breaks in half the day we are to fly back to New York. I am sad, but it served its purpose and though I return home without it, I carry its words with me. They buoy me in the years to come, through pandemic, through my daughter crossing the threshold to adulthood, through my son moving through adolescence, a stage I deem equal parts harrowing and miraculous.
* * *
This too shall pass. These words insert an extra breath when anxiety holds me in its vice grip. They whisper to me in those blessed moments of feeling all is well. They are the Jewish manifestation of the Buddhist concept of impermanence, one that has spoken to and guided me since I first learned about it in college.
Whatever you are going through, know that it will change.
If you are unsure, confused, or frightened, keep taking one small next step at a time. Don't think too far beyond that, as things will unfold all on their own and thinking ahead is likely to augment your fears rather than remind you of where your feet and heart are right this minute.
If you are loving life in general or just having a really good day, if you just ate a beautiful meal or had a long conversation with someone you love and trust or washed off the day in a hot shower before bed, savor these, for they too shall pass.
Nothing lasts forever but the love that is our essence. In life, this love might take the form of fire or water, softness or power, creation or destruction, or more likely, all of the above according to the season and chapter. Remembering this helps me keep an even keel when the waters around me rise and fall, when circumstances challenge me, and especially when I feel unequipped to meet the moment. Gam ze ya'avor is an anchor and a call to be as present as possible while always keeping an eye on the bigger picture.
I remember our time in Israel the same way I would remember a dream. I suspect at the end of my life, that may be true for all of it – the moments I thought would swallow me whole and the moments I wanted to burst with blessing. All of it, a series of narrow bridges on the precarious path home.
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I loved this so much, Jena— thank you! Just gorgeous.
Your words are such a balm. Thank you.